Comfortably Numb

Sheila Kumar's Storehouse

Published on: 06/28/17 5:41 AM


Book review: The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy. Penguin Books.

This take, rather than a full-fledged review,  is in three parts.


Just started on the book a few days ago and find my lips quirking into small smiles every few paragraphs. Smiles of recognition of people, places, situations. Smiles of amusement at the weirdly — always weirdly — funny happenings. Smiles that go with sharply indrawn breaths as certain points hit home, hard. Smiles of appreciation at the way the sentences are crafted so luminously.


Halfway through, though, it all falls apart. Like a pulverised star which leaves small bits of itself on the ground, still sparkling brightly, though.

The story starts off on point, as it were, with Anjum the transgender woman, then wanders hither and thither,  utterly without cogent purpose. A whole lot of people wander too, in and out of the book, most of them leaving but a hazy impression on the reader.

The tragic dichotomy is that the first protagonist Anjum`s story is way more interesting than the Kashmir segment which — but of course — is more wrenching. But all too soon, the latter flattens out into a laundry list of Bad Things Done to a Beautiful Land. The two strands of this story entwine eventually but, alas, just don`t integrate too well.

The second protagonist S. Tilottamma`s slow transition to Enemy of the State too, just doesn`t read too convincingly, unless the reader looks  beyond the surface details and decides that Tilo is none other than the author herself.

Stray thought: Roy could have written a non-fiction on Bastarlands, on Kashmir, on the State of Things as they are Today in India. But make no mistake, the book serves  the purpose it should: it is a hair shirt of  sorts. Lest we forget, let`s have all those sad stories told to us again. Then again, we live in times where hair shirts serve no purpose.

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is,  ultimately, a song for Kashmir. Not a paean, not a requiem. Just a Soulful Song for a Lost Land,  to be sung in a low but melodious voice.


But oh those aforementioned sparkling pieces of the pulverised star:

  • She didn`t teach her pupils to sing `We Shall Overcome` in any language, because she wasn`t sure that Overcoming was anywhere on anyone`s horizon.
  • She had learned from experience that Need was a warehouse that could accommodate a considerable amount of cruelty.
  • Dear Doctor,
    If you like you can change every inch of me. I’m just a story.
  • God’s carotid burst open on the new border between India and Pakistan and a million people died of hatred. Neighbours turned on each other as though they’d never known each other, never been to each other’s weddings, never sung each other’s songs.
  • …ever since I first met her all those years ago when we were still in college, I have constructed myself around her. Not around her perhaps, but around the memory of my love for her.
  • Normalcy was declared.

And this, fraught with danger and meaning and infinite sadness :

  • They would be more likely to win any war they fought, because they belonged to a generation that had known nothing but war.
Arundhati RoyBastarfictionKashmirnaxalsThe Ministry of Utmost happiness

Sheila Kumar • June 28, 2017

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  1. Bamboosong June 28, 2017 - 7:00 am Reply

    Hair shirt! So basically only a penitent or an ascetic will be able to get this; I don’t expect the hate lobby to start thinking, but here’s hoping!

    “They would be more likely to win any war they fought, because they belonged to a generation that had known nothing but war.” infinitely moving, this.

    • Sheila Kumar June 29, 2017 - 5:21 am Reply

      I`d read it if I were you, despite all the inherent chaos. Luminous prose.

  2. nikita June 28, 2017 - 9:08 am Reply

    Thank you for the truth. Going to read it all the same 🙂

  3. Julia Dutta June 28, 2017 - 11:12 am Reply

    Sheila, the review is as split as the book i guess. Just avoidable! How gullible we are of names – fading writers no matter how attractive twenty years ago, by all counts on word content, may not be so interesting now. Why can’t we accept, that a story-teller has faded into the woodwork? Amen!

    • Sheila Kumar June 29, 2017 - 5:20 am Reply

      Julia, I`d read it if I were you…like I said, parts of it are positively luminous. And parts of it, most pertinent. You can guess which parts!

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